Economy of Motion

WARNING – This is only for proper card trick nerds.  Not even, like, people who really like card tricks.  But the proper geeks (like me) that love not only card tricks, but how they are constructed (like me) and who scrutinise them all in far more detail than they were ever meant to withstand (like me) and who genuinely consider these activities fun. (You get the idea).

What the bloody hell is economy of motion?  And why should I care?

Economy of Motion is the term given to the amount of actual ‘movement’ in an effect or routine.  That’s not just sleight of hand, but all movement, I would suggest.  Tricks benefit from good economy of motion (generally the magician using the least amount of movement to make the magic happen) or suffer from poor economy of motion (using too much movement, so that the clarity of the effect suffers).

Here are two examples…

  1.  You bring out a deck of cards, shuffle it, spread the cards across the table.  A spectator chooses one, and as he looks at it, you scoop up the spread, shuffle again, and then take the card back.  You push it into the centre of the deck, control it to the bottom with a double undercut, false shuffle, and then table the deck.
  2. You bring out a deck of cards, spread them between your hands, and have a card removed.  You hold the spread so that the spectator can return the card to the same position, and you cull the card to the bottom as you put the spread back together.  Then you table the deck.

Both examples achieve the same thing, but one with considerably more action and movement.  As a general rule, the more you handle the cards, the more chance your spectators will assume that ‘something’ happened, or you did ‘something’ to make the trick work.

That’s not to necessarily say that you should always handle everything as in the second example – but apply the same theory of removing the superfluous movement.  If you were to do that with example 1 as above, you could eliminate the first shuffle before the spectator removes a card (as it serves no purpose), and change the control to a side-steal instead of a double undercut (less movement for the actual control) and then remove the false shuffle after the control.  With a lot less motion and visual clutter, you are in the same place.

This basic rule can be applied to specific moves as well, and can reveal weaknesses in specific techniques too – as again, the general rule is that the more economy of motion a technique has, the more natural it is.

Consider these moves…

  • Atfus
  • The Braue Addition
  • The Braue Reversal (and particularly the Harry Lorayne version)

And compare them to…

  • Backspread and slipping the lowermost card into a break
  • The Vernon Addition
  • The Half-Pass or Christ Twist (or Krenzel’s Mechanical Reverse)

The first three techniques have poor economy of motion – lots of things sliding, slipping and flipping over to achieve a certain result, and I think it would be fair to say that only the most flamboyant character could make them look ‘natural’.

The second set of techniques all involve less movement or motion, and therefore are more efficient, and more natural.  Superior techniques in my opinion (if you disagree, we’ll leave it at that.  Don’t email me to argue about it – this isn’t the Magic Cafe, you know! :D)

Another example to look at is Cy Enfield’s ‘Gambler Out-Gambled’.  An amazing trick, but as written, it has very little economy of motion – the deck is tabled, cut, picked up, the top card turned over, flipped face down again, tabled, then the deck is tabled again, and cut… to produce all four Aces.  This equates to the deck being put down and picked up eight times in total.  By substituting a slip shuffle (or in-the-hands slip cut) you can remove all of that extraneous motion, to the benefit of the effect.

So basically – the better the economy of motion, the more natural and magical your effect will be.


What makes magic such a vast and complicated subject is the fact that there are no hard and fast rules, and everyone will make different compromises, and at certain times, it could be better to add some movement or motion, as long as it serves a purpose.

  1. To Make Conditions Fairer – take this example – imagine that you have forced three cards on three spectators, and you are now going to reveal them one at a time.  In terms of economy of action, it would make sense to keep hold of the deck.  But perhaps spectators will find it more suspicious for you to hold onto it, and so tabling them, or boxing them even, is extra action, but fits the context of the routine.
  2. Avoiding ‘COZY’ handling – here’s something that isn’t so obvious, but sometimes a trick can have a handling that we describe as ‘cozy’.  This tends to mean that there’s too much action happening in too small a space (an example is Paul Harris’s ‘Stapled’ trick from Art of Astonishment – an amazing effect that never got the reaction it deserved, and as a result, one that you just don’t see done very often) and this, in itself, is suspicious.  It’s hard to articulate, but you will know it when you see it.  In these cases, adding ‘distance’ (in terms of both time, and actual space between them) between the moves or procedures is advantageous, and prevents a cozy or busy handling.
  3. Theatrics and texture – of course, there are this points to consider as well.  Running a deck between your hands to reveal a face up chosen card is nowhere near as theatrical as ribbon spreading the deck across the table the reveal the same thing.  Texture is equally important, and performing all your effects with the most economy of motion (or indeed, with very little) will make them all look visually similar.  Variety, like cayenne pepper, is the spice of life.

Geek out!

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